MIT prof. speaks about 1968 Chicago protests and their aftermath
Dr. Heather Hendershot visited Brandeis to discuss her new book, which details the protests and how they affected the public’s view of the media.
Dr. Heather Hendershot, author and professor of film and media at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, visited Brandeis on Thursday, Nov. 3 to introduce her new book, “When the News Broke: Chicago 1968 and the Polarizing of America.” “When the News Broke” details the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and its effect on future media consumption and will be published by the University of Chicago Press in December.
Prof. Thomas Doherty (AMST) introduced Dr. Hendershot at the event, describing a bit of Hendershot’s background: she is a media historian and has published over four books on American news and television history. Hendershot received a BA from Yale University and an MA and Ph.D. from the University of Rochester.
Hendershot asked her audience to imagine themselves as journalists, arriving in Chicago in August of 1968. To do so, one must first understand the political climate in America at the time. President Lyndon B. Johnson had just announced that he would not be running for reelection, making the goal of that year’s Democratic National Convention to nominate a presidential candidate for the Democratic Party. The Vietnam War was at its peak, with over half a million troops deployed. Despite varying politicians’ promises, the war’s end was nowhere in sight. Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. just four months prior, race riots were rampant throughout the country, with a disproportionate amount of Black people being killed by police.
A few weeks before, the Republican National Committee in Miami was met with hundreds of anti-Vietnam War protesters, inciting pushback and violence from the police. The organizers of the convention and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley prepared for an influx of 10,000 anti-war protesters throughout the four-day event. As a result, and keeping the events of Miami in mind, Daley made restrictions to shut down the protesters, in addition to the over 100,000 security people present. In May, Chicago electrical workers for the Illinois Bell Telephone went on strike and stayed on strike until September. A lack of electrical workers meant new telephone lines could not be installed for the DNC, which reporters relied on to produce live TV coverage of the Convention for their network. It was no coincidence, said Hendershot, that Daley had not negotiated with workers to end their strike, and journalists suspected it was a clear punch from Daley to censor coverage.
On August 28th, 10,000 protesters gathered on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. The number of police present was almost ten times larger than the group of protesters. Police attacked demonstrators and left many of them bloody and injured. Credentials didn’t matter here; being a member of the press would not save you from attack. Hendershot displayed pictures of the protest that had gone viral: beaten protestors, angry police, and crowds of demonstrators outside the convention. In one photo, photographer Paul Sequeira captured a picture just as a police officer sprayed a can of mace pointed directly at the camera, blocking his face. “What’s particularly disturbing about this photo … is this smile on [the officer’s] face,” commented Hendershot. In another photograph, New York Times photographer Barton Silverman is seen struggling to hold on to his camera as five police officers arrest him. These pictures have circulated the country; the news coverage of the convention and the protests on Michigan Avenue were the most-watched programs on TV in 1968.
The tipping point for viewers watching on TV, however, was a picture taken on the third day of protests, showing a physical clash between protesters and police officers. This angered many people at home, as up until that point there was minimal coverage of the protests outside the convention, and led to thousands of telegrams, phone calls, and letters to be sent to local news stations.
The coverage of the 1968 DNC was the turning point for the media and its neutrality. Before the events in Chicago, journalists were regarded as objective sources and deemed to be “good.” The public generally believed the media to be trustworthy, and this mindset shifted after the events of the convention. In an effort to remain neutral and not insult the city, reporters refrained from focusing too much on the protests outside. So, after a large eruption of violence, when viewers finally saw pictures of what was happening, it seemed “out of the blue,” said Hendershot. For 17 minutes on the convention's third day, police beat protesters outside of the Hilton Hotel while cameras were rolling. The demonstrators chanted, “the whole world is watching,” which quickly became a catchphrase of the anti-Vietnam War protestors.
Following the convention, the Chicago Study Team wrote the Walker Report, which found that police did, in fact, use unnecessary violence and attacked protesters who had done no harm. Despite these findings, a survey found that 32% of respondents believed that security forces used the right amount of force, 25% felt insufficient force was used, and only 18% thought the police used too much force. Many believed that the news overreported the protests or that demonstrations deserved violence in retribution for their rioting. Hendershot describes the public’s criticism as saying, “‘Okay, you had your camera here, but if you just panned this way, or panned this way, you would have gotten more material. You wouldn’t have mistakenly only told the story of the center of the room. You might have told the story of what these people were doing on the other side and you would have told a better story.’” What the people needed was more context, the bigger picture.
Hendershot believes this media criticism is fundamentally different from today's criticism of the news. Following the convention, a major complaint was the lack of context, while today’s criticism uses “fake news” claims to delegitimize the media. Hendershot explained that the networks at the time did not fail by showing a “liberal bias,” as many believed. But, “[the book] is also critical,” said Hendershot. “I argue that there are ways that they failed viewers: by under-covering violence out of a sense of fairness, but also by avoiding decontextualization.” The convention was long, with lots of waiting periods, and reporters indeed had the time to provide more context about the violence. They just decided not to, which Hendershot believes was a big mistake.
In the aftermath of the convention, Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon weaponized the idea of the “liberal media bias” and used pictures of the protests in his campaign ads to villainize demonstrators. “Most importantly,” summarizes Hendershot, “the idea of liberal media bias becomes nationalized and normalized after the convention.” This idea used to be a fringe, mostly southern opinion but was now gaining speed around the country.
Hendershot ended with a recent image from the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. In it, a journalist, wearing a press tag around her neck and holding her phone, is wearing a gas mask. Hendershot concluded: “Today we hold cameras in our pockets; gathering images of police brutality is certainly much easier than it was in 1968. The question is what difference does that make, or what difference should it make?”